In an effort to challenge the status quo, to continue this revolution of sorts and give voice to those silenced by administrations such as the current one, Michelle Obama is forging ahead with her own set of rules. It is only fitting that she has chosen Amy Sherald, an emerging artist and heart transplant survivor, to paint her official portrait for the Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery.
It is hard not to be impressed by the boldness, color and use of pattern in Amy Sherald’s work. Having been awarded this somewhat formidable task, Ms Sherald has been cast into the orbit of celebratory artist. Whether that is something she is comfortable with remains to be seen, and yet one can understand the complete confidence that Michelle Obama had in her selection. Obama’s choice is a significant one. She is saluting this emerging artist, for all of those reasons and another very important one: Relevance.
Sherald is an expert at calmly depicting the struggle and identity of where we are now. In her works The Make Believer (Monet’s Garden), 2016, top, and The Boy With No Past, 2014, above, these images prove irresistible in their vividness. Sherald has captured a spirit that is bold and unapologetic, non-confrontational yet defiant. Her depiction of street smart fashion, of obvious interest to Obama, is deliberate, playful and accessible, far removed from the echelons of exclusivity. Sherald’s choices are original and controlled without being contrived. She depicts the inner spirit of ordinary people in technicolor honesty, regardless of status. This in itself is simultaneously a humbling and empowering message and this is the message that Michelle Obama wishes to convey. It is up to us now to embrace it.
Whilst checking out Sherald’s work currently displayed in Fictions, at Harlem’s Studio Museum, don’t miss the artistry of her peers. Flanked by the striking graphics of Deborah Roberts’, The Sleepwalkers, 2017, below
and Devan Shimoyama’s bejeweled Shape Up and a Trim, 2017, below,
whose works challenge racial and gender stereotypes, a fabulous celebration of restrained flamboyancy is on display. In the chromogenic color prints of Kings and Queens (2017)and Colorblinds (2017) within Genevieve Gaignard’s installation, a Cindy Sherman style voyeurism is established, with photographic images inserted into vintage styled sets. Gaignard’s Nevertheless, She Persisted, 2017, with a porcelain figure trapped within a gold birdcage, below, references racial injustices, and possibly Maya Angelou’s I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings.
Simultaneously nostalgic and critical, these works are powerful in highlighting taboo subjects such as restrictions of liberties and incarceration.
Similarly, in the work of Sherrill Roland, The Jumpsuit Projects, 2016-2017, above, a powerful autobiographical commentary is presented on wrongful imprisonment. Finally in the adjacent gallery, the exhibition Their Own Harlems features the timeless message of migration, depicted by Jacob Lawrence (The Architect, 1959, below), and others, providing historical context and poignant relevance.
If the appointment of Amy Sherald merely increases the exposure of these artists, Michelle Obama has done well. But by introducing this work to a much wider audience, Obama has not only secured Sherald’s future, but is keeping alive the consciousness of The Studio Museum in Harlem, as it leads up to the start of its three year construction project, led by David Adjaye. With curator Thelma Golden at its helm, there was never any danger of it “Going Gentle Into That Night” (Dylan Thomas) during its temporary closure, but now there is significantly more reason for it to be defiantly screaming Hamilton’s “Stay Alive” (Lin- Manuel Miranda) with all the backing of this Harlem Renaissance boost.